'Parks and Recreation' co-creator Mike Schur on writing the perfect finale (again and again and again)
Tonight's first episode won't end the series, but it could have
Do not be alarmed if the first of tonight’s two episodes of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” (it airs at 8:30) feels like a series finale. It was designed to function as one — just in case — as have the last several of the show’s season finales.
For much of its lifespan, “Parks” has been one of the best shows on all of television, but its modest ratings have made the last several renewals shaky at best. As a result, the show’s co-creator Mike Schur and his staff have approached each season finale like it could be the last story ever told about Leslie Knope, Ron Effing Swanson, Ben Wyatt and company, usually involving some kind of big event like Leslie’s election to the Pawnee city council.
Tonight’s first episode is not, obviously, the end of season 5, but it was the last episode of the season’s initial 13-episode order,(*) and Schur didn’t necessarily expect to get more, so he had these 13 episodes build towards the wedding of Leslie and Ben, which they attempt to pull off at the last minute here. It’s an incredibly sweet, funny outing in the manner “Parks” fans have come to know — but it won’t be the last episode, because NBC later ordered 9 more for this season, and the show’s renewal for a season 6 seems likely in the wake of a disastrous midseason for the network.(**)
(*) It’s the 14th episode to air this season, but only because Schur decided to insert “Women in Garbage” earlier into the schedule, even though it was produced as part of the season’s back 9.
(**) Call it “Chuck” Syndrome, defined by the network being in such bad shape that a minor but known quantity becomes more valuable than a new series with a higher ceiling and lower floor. (And also where the creators have to keep writing In Case of Emergency series finale-style episodes.)
Last month, I sat down with Schur to talk about how he approaches each finale, what he looks for in a great series finale in general, whether “Parks and Recreation” might ever address its mockumentary format the way “The Office” (where Schur used to write) has this season, and more.
Shortly before the interview began, Schur was at work with his writers working on the story for what will be the actual final episode of season 5, which he later wound up co-writing with Amy Poehler. As they were discussing all the things they had to squeeze into the script, “Parks” veteran Harris Wittels noted, “It's also deciding the end of the show."
“Oh, we do that every three months,” replied Schur.
I want to talk about what you and Harris said in the room about ending the show every three months. We’re still a ways away from May, but how are you approaching the end of this season? (Alan) Yang later on started talking about setting up stories for next season.
Mike Schur: We found out towards the end of season 2 — when we were shooting the first six episodes of season 3, because of Amy’s pregnancy — that we were going to be a mid-season show. It was like having a near-death experience, basically. And so what we did is we said, “Okay, season 3 could be it.” So we tried to write a season that would end in an episode (“L’il Sebastian”) that — if that were the last episode that ever aired — we would be happy and feel like we had ended the show, not totally closing off every storyline, but just that the characters were being sent off into the great beyond in an interesting way. So Leslie has found a guy that she really loves and her, but she's also approached by people who want her to maybe run for office. And then at the end of it, she looks at Ben and she smiles, and you can think of the rest of the story — she's in an interesting situation, but she’s Leslie Knope and she’ll figure it out.
And we were brought back for season 4. And again we thought, “Well, this could be this last season,” and we did the same thing. We said that in episode 1 she decides to run for office and at the end of the year she’s going to win. And if that’s the last episode that ever happens, then great. She’s won; she’s achieved a great goal, but we also laid in certain things — like, let’s leave the audience to imagine Andy Dwyer becoming a police officer, and other things like that.
And then we’re doing it again this year. The way we operate every year is we that don't know what our future is. So we try to tell the juiciest, most interesting stories we can tell. And at the end of the year, we write a series finale. Something that, if this is it, we go out the way we want to go out. And we try not to close it off so completely that if the show comes back for another year, that we have nowhere to go.
It doesn’t end with them on a spaceship about to crash into the sun.
Mike Schur: Yeah, it’s like the “NewsRadio” thing where they're on the Titanic.
There was space station after the third season, Titanic after the fourth, and then the fifth (season finale) is they all moved to New Hampshire.
Mike Schur: Right. So we don’t do it quite that extreme. But we’re in a hurry to tell stories. And there’s a way in which it's helped the show a lot, because we don’t hold anything back. We don’t say, “This will be a good season 7 idea,” or something. The characters have had a lot of momentum in their lives because of this phenomenon.
So would, for instance, Andy and April have gotten married as quickly as they did?
Mike Schur: In that case, maybe, because that was borne of an entire day of just talking about them: “Now that they’re together, what do we do?” And that might have happened anyway. But I don't think that a lot of the other relationships would not have gone the way they went as quickly as they did. We wouldn’t have maybe spent as much time developing them as we have without that Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.
Overall, how are you feeling? You’re now several NBC administrations past the one that had any investment in you, in terms of getting you on the air. And Bob (Greenblatt) and Jen (Salke) have talked repeatedly about wanting to broaden the network and specifically broaden the comedy approach.
Mike Schur: It’s been the same mentality since a previous administration’s decision to move us mid-season, which is the Bill Belichick approach. Bill Belichick’s motto is “Do your job,” and he tells everybody not to read the papers, don’t read reviews, don’t get distracted by the media hype. Just everyone has to do your job. And the linebackers have to play linebacker, and the kickers have to kick, and that became our motto unofficially in season 3. It was like, “We're making these episodes, we don't know when they're going to air. We can't control any this other stuff. If we just write well, and act well, and edit well, and produce well, and set design well, then we'll make something we're proud of.” So it’s like the only attitude that makes sense to me, frankly.
Bill Lawrence has had this attitude in the past where he tells his actors when the shows are on the bubble and it’s development season, “Go out for pilots; that way you’re covered if we don’t get picked up. And if we are picked up, you get to stay with us.” We're in development season right now; I don’t know if necessarily Amy is going to do another show, but say somebody wants to build a show around Pratt, are you going to tell Pratt to take it?
Mike Schur: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I've never, luckily, been confronted with that. We have to deal with movies a lot; we bend our schedule around a lot of different people’s movie schedules.
Well, yeah, he did kill Osama bin Laden.
Mike Schur: He did play part of Seal Team Six, yes. And Aziz did a movie, and Amy’s done movies, and Rob Lowe’s done movies. So that’s our problem. I’ve never been asked, so I don’t know what the answer would be. It would make me sad. I might say yes because our philosophy is that everybody should do everything they want to do, writers and actors both. But that would really bum me out if I imagined Chris Pratt on someone else’s stage. It would be like he’s cheating on me.
This isn’t the exact same thing, but you and Dan (Goor) have the Andy Samberg show in development at FOX now.
Mike Schur: Yes. So, I probably wouldn’t have a leg stand on if I said no.
Where do things stand with that right now? What phase are you at?
Mike Schur: We’re sort of in the phase that everyone’s in which is we have turned in a draft to the network and we’re sort of waiting to hear what they think. (Note: Since this interview, FOX ordered a pilot, which will co-star Andre Braugher, Terry Crews and former "Parks" writer Chelsea Peretti.) We’re sort of optimistic and it’s going to be tough because Dan is a huge part of the show and if this pilot goes forward, I’m not going anywhere; I’m staying here. But losing him, it would be hard to compensate for.
Yeah, I’ve been in this room and when you’re not there, he runs the room.
Mike Schur: He runs the room, yeah. But we also have had the luxury of having a lot of writers who have been here since the beginning, who I think are ready to step up and assume larger roles.
Over these last two and half years or so, have you done stories in part under this philosophy of “We could go off the air at any point,” and in retrospect, you wish you hadn’t done it that way?
Mike Schur: No, there really haven't. I mean, it's a pain in the ass, because we did a huge finale last year where our main character achieved this gigantic goal. And the goal moved her into a new phase of her life. And it was a pain in the butt when we came back for season 5 to have to conceive of new characters and new storylines, and figure out how she fit into the world she used to be in. It’s become a joke on our show that everybody has like five jobs. Ann has two jobs, and Leslie kind of has two jobs, and Tom now has two jobs. And it’s because, again, we want to have people growing and changing in the ways that they are supposed to.
So it’s a pain in the butt, but I don’t regret any of it, because I think it makes a more interesting show. If Tom Haverford just sat around for years and years and years, and just dreamed of doing things and never actually did them, or every time he did them they were failures, that would start to really get depressing to me. And I don’t like that on shows, except for “Cheers,” which had a sort of “Iceman Cometh” kind of deal. But even on “Cheers,” Norm got jobs.
He got the painting business.
Mike Schur: He got the painting business and it kind it worked. He made a little money and paid down his bar tab. I think even in shows that are designed not to change, characters have to change. They have to mature or else they get really stagnant and boring. And I was thinking about recently was the episode where Norm had an idea and a co-worker stole his idea. And he was really upset and they convinced him that he should march into his boss's office – this is towards the end (of the series). It's such a funny episode. They were like, “This guy stole your idea; this is a great idea. You have to march in there and tell him it was your idea.” And he gets psyched up and he starts to walk in the office, and then from inside he hears his boss saying, “That is the stupidest idea I've ever heard my life. Get out of here; you're fired.” I think he actually fires the guy who stole the idea, and Norm just kind of scuffles back. It was such a funny, unexpected thing because you're so conditioned to the idea that he's going to walk in and say, “That’s my idea.” And the boss is going to go, “Peterson, you have a promotion.”
So, the season 3 finale, you kill the beloved L’il Sebastian. You staged this big funeral, Andy writes a song, Ron burns his eyebrows off; all sorts of crazy stuff happens. Season 4 finale, also big: the election, all sorts of stuff. Was (episode) 13 of this season also designed like that?
Mike Schur: One of the benchmarks of every year is that they sort of buy episodes. They still do this order 13 and then maybe a back 9 thing. So at the beginning of the year, were looking around the landscape. And “30 Rock,” it was only, by their choice, going to do 13. And “Up All Night” was ordered for 13, I believe. And “Community” was ordered for 13. And so we had this kind of Spidey sense that if we wanted to make a hundred percent sure that we would not be caught unaware, that we should build to something around episode 13. And we did that. We got our back nine, so we’re going to go all the way to 22.
So there is a kind of little thing that happens in episode 13 where the idea was, “We’re going to assume we have a full season, but just in case to be extra sure, we’re going to build to something in 13, and we’re going to stick to it.” That even if we got our back 9 order, which we did, we wouldn't deviate from the plan. We would execute that plan and then just go past it. So that is going to happen in February.
I used to talk about this with the “Chuck” guys all the time, because they were in much similar straights to you where they wrote many different finales for that show over the years. And it became harder and harder to top what they’d done. “Oh, now he’s proposing marriage. Okay. Well, fine. The next one will be, now we’re seeing the wedding and what do we do after that?” As you guys working on this finale right now, is it in any way difficult because of all the big things you’ve done previously?
Mike Schur: I think it’s always hard to do finales, frankly. But the advantages of having a big ensemble show like we have are that there’s a lot of different aspects of their lives that we can kind of focus on. And so there’s Leslie work life and personal life and her engagement to Ben is obviously a big thing this year. And there’s also Tom’s new business, and there’s a big storyline for Ann that’s coming up that will be introduced in a couple episodes. There’s a big storyline with April that’s coming up. Like, we have so many characters and so many big moves we can make that it doesn’t seem like we have to top what we did. It seems like we have to come up with a new kind of formula for what to build towards and then how to execute it, if that makes sense.
Finales are hard and yet once upon a time there was the idea that, other than “Cheers” and “M*A*S*H” and a few others, with sitcoms the season ends and the season finale or series finale is just another episode.
Mike Schur: Yeah.
So what are comedy finales in the past that you've admired, whether it’s the end of the series or just a great way to end a season?
Mike Schur: Oh, boy. God, that’s a good question.
And you can say something like “Casino Night” (the season 2 finale of “The Office”) if you want.
Mike Schur: Well, here’s the funny thing about “Casino Night.” No one remembers the casino aspect of Casino Night. What they remember is Jim tells Pam he loves her. That’s the point of “Casino Night,” right?
Sure. Though I used to quote the bit about Toby beating Michael at blackjack, where he says, “I’m gonna chase that feeling.”
Mike Schur: This is the kind of genius of “The Office” — and it came from the British version — was the wacky boss is the big, main part of the show. And the inversion of that old trope, so the romance happens in the margins, instead of the main point of it being, will they, won't they. And the casino part of that had so many funny jokes. Like it's revealed in that episode that Kevin actually won a World Series of Poker bracelet. That’s just a crazy character detail. It was just casually dropped in but what was great about that is what you're left with is the juicy romantic stuff.
I co-wrote the season 3 finale with Paul Lieberstein. And it was the same idea. The main plot of that episode is that Michael is trying to get this job at corporate, but the thing that happens in the end is that Jim comes back and asks Pam on a date. And that’s kind of what you’re left with. That formula makes so much sense to me, that you try to have a big giant comedy explosion in the finale to make everyone feel like you’re going out in a bang. But then the thing that you're left with as a viewer is this intriguing romantic, personal story.
It’s funny you say that, because I think a lot of the classic series finales that people talk about, for good or for ill, all they're really remembering is the last scene.
Mike Schur: Yes, they remember the Hawkeye and the helicopter (on “M*A*S*H”).
Yeah, Hawkeye and the helicopter, the autistic kid putting the snow globe on TV (on “St. Elsewhere”), Bob waking up…
Mike Schur: Bob waking up in Suzanne Pleshette’s bed (on “Newhart”).
And obviously Tony at the ice cream place. What happens in the rest of “The Sopranos” finale? Tell me anything.
Mike Schur: I don’t know if I can. Well, no, I remember Tony going to see Uncle Junior, and him saying, “You ran all of North Jersey,” and Junior saying, “How nice,” and staring out the window.
Mike Schur: Which I personally felt, at the time, “I want this to end right now.” That to me was the best possible ending for that finale.
(For the next five or 10 minutes, the conversation devolved into us trying to remember details of various comedy finales — both season and series — before returning to the idea that many comedies would just do standard episodes at the end of each season, rather than something big and finale-like.)
Well, “Friends” would do big ones. The one where they had “I, Ross, take thee Rachel…”
Mike Schur: “Take thee Rachel” is great. That was very exciting and crazily unexpected. I still don’t know to this day how I did not see that coming, but I did not.
“Seinfeld,” obviously, did the one where they shoot the pilot.
Mike Schur: Right.
They did the one where Susan dies, are you pro or anti that episode?
Mike Schur: I was anti.
Are you still anti, though?
Mike Schur: I haven’t watched it in a long time.
But I’m saying in light of seeing “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is it still so jarring?
Mike Schur: Yeah, well “Curb” is a whole different beast. He’s more intentionally miserable than George was in “Seinfeld.” But I was anti; I didn’t like it at the time, I remember.
And how do you feel about the “Seinfeld” series finale?
Mike Schur: I think the “Seinfeld” finale is underrated. Again, I haven't seen it in a long time, but I remember being shocked about how much people hated it. But it was like a very like astute summation of the entire life of the show to me. I was very impressed that they decided to do it that way. I liked that the conversation they had in the jail cell was the same conversation they had at the start of the pilot. And I liked the idea of their miserable, awful, selfish lives being put on trial. I think it was a little on the nose because they were literally put on trial.
I don’t know. It just felt to me like Larry David came back to say, “You people are so stupid, you didn’t realize you were watching assholes for nine years.”
Mike Schur: And I think that’s interesting. Isn’t that interesting? I mean, you were put on the side of those characters as a viewer. You loved those characters. And they were not good people. They just weren’t. They weren’t evil, but they weren’t good people. And that was part of the DNA of the show, and I really enjoyed seeing them confronting that. I think the problem is you can’t ignore that for 250 episodes, and then suddenly slam people in the face with it at the end. It was so jarring that they were being meta in that way that I think it maybe wasn’t entirely a success. But maybe it’s just my personal taste, I enjoy characters percolating like that. And I think that maybe there had to be a little percolation. But I also like the super early days of “Seinfeld” more than I liked the later years. When the show was being watched by 79 million people in the later seasons, I didn’t like it as much as the early seasons.
What do you remember of the “Cheers” finale other than the last five minutes — the bull session?
Mike Schur: I remember the whole finale. I remember the announcement that he was leaving with Diane and I remember him yelling at everyone and telling them that they needed to get lives and him on the plane. And then they did the crazy thing where the pilot starts talking to them; they can both hear the pilot, which was an insane, an insane device.
But I still marvel at that last whatever it is; 16 minutes of essentially continuous dialogue in play form where they're all smoking cigars, and that’s beautiful and perfect. And that they all slowly leave. I did this thing on Vulture a long time ago about “Cheers,” and the thing that blew me away is how the theme of that show is repeated in basically every episode. You can pick any episode at random and the theme of the episode is that these people are family, and that it’s important to be with your family. And that it’s a place where everybody knows your name, and all that stuff. And in the finale, I think Frasier has a line in that sequence where he’s leaving. Oh, there was a thing where the phone rings, and they say it might be Vera, or it might be one of Carla’s kids…
And they’re all just not gonna answer.
Mike Schur: Just let it ring. Let them think we’re on our way home, which is such a lovely idea, and they never answer the phone. And then they all leave slowly, and then Norm comes back in. And it’s a great joke where he says, do you know what I love more than anything else? And Sam says, “Beer, Norm?” And Norm goes, “Yeah sure I’ll have a quick one.” But I guess it’s true. Finales aren’t that big of deal in comedy, now that you think about it.
You’ve worked on other things but this is the show you co-created, you’ve been running it for a while, and obviously you’ve done these in case of emergency kind of finales. As both a comedy writer and an amateur comedy historian, do you ever think, “Are we doing something here that’s going to stand the test of time?” Is “Win, Lose or Draw” one day going to be talked about in those terms, as you're working on it? Or can you not think that way?
Mike Schur: I can’t think in that away. I mean, I hope so. I hope so. Greg (Daniels) and I, when we were writing the pilot, I remember having a conversation where we played this game, where it was like, “Okay, let’s say the show makes it on the air, and it lasts for seven or eight years. What is the finale? Where do we want to point all of these characters? What are they all doing?? And it was an interesting exercise. And at the time, I thought, “Okay it’s very obvious what the finale is. The finale is a ribbon cutting ceremony on this new park that Leslie's gotten built and she cuts a ribbon and burst into tears because she’s so happy.” And now it’s very different what the finale would be. If I knew when the finale were I wouldn’t have that be the finale because a lot's happened to her since then. But I don’t ever try to think of it - I only try to think of it as what’s the move for the characters that’s interesting.
But hypothetically, you get renewed for next year and it's not quite a “30 Rock” deal but Bob makes it clear that this is it: you get to come back one more time, that’s it. How would you approach that finale differently, if at all?
Mike Schur: Well, I don’t know. It’s a weird situation to imagine writing final words for characters. And I think I would just say that I want to make sure that everything that every character says, as a last line or moment, is perfect. Like, I love the pictures in our opening credit sequence. I think they're all something like 42 frames long. It's like a minute, a second and a third. But in every single one of them, every character is doing the exact thing that they should be doing. It’s the perfect second long essence of every character. Like if you watch them, everyone is like - Leslie’s like, Leslie’s face just lights up in a big way. April smiles and then sees the camera and hides and Andy’s got a guitar and he points dramatically at the camera. And Ben gives a shrug of like, “I can’t believe what happening right now.” And Rob Lowe snaps his fingers and points at you. And I think that that would be the goal: whenever these stories are, or whatever the last words that they say are, that I would want them to be that essential to the characters.
You mentioned the park. You’ve returned to Lot 48 this season.
Mike Schur: Yeah.
The show had moved beyond that. Basically after “Kaboom,” it ceased to be an issue at all. Why did you decide to return to it?
Mike Schur: Part of it is that feeling that this might be our final season. I love it in shows — my favorite season of “The Shield,” I think, is the Forest Whitaker season. I remember watching the premiere and thinking how impressive it was that they were going to base season 5 on the pilot. It's the large-scale version of when Ron told Diane about Duke Silver on our show. It’s like, “This is a thing that was planted a really long time ago and now here it is.” And so part of it was saying, “Okay, we don’t know what our future holds but one dangling participle in her life is this big project. It’s the reason she met Ann and it’s the thing that got her so jazzed up at the beginning.” So we wanted to return to it a little bit. It’s an arc that is going to end. It’s not going to dominate the rest the year, but I just felt like if we don’t know what our future is, that’s something I want to take care of.
Greg’s running this last season of “The Office,” and one of the things he's done in terms of returning to the past is talking about the camera crew again. They’ve done a lot of it this year, where people acknowledge the existence of the camera crew. You’ve never really done that at any point. Do you just treat it as a device at this point, and not as a film crew in City Hall?
Mike Schur: That was the way it’s been on this show since the beginning. On “The Office,” it was reintroducing the world to this device where the last time you saw it was was, like, “Spinal Tap.” And (on “Parks”), we didn’t have that debt we had to pay or that hole to dig ourselves out of. And so we always treated it much more as — it’s not as quite what “Modern Family” does. They rarely look at the camera or engage at all. We’re somewhere in between, but we’re closer to the “Modern Family” version of it.
Yeah, April and Ben will look at the camera quite often.
Mike Schur: Yeah, and Andy will sometimes and occasionally Tom will but it’s very rare. And we’ve also done fewer and fewer talking heads as the show's gone on. You know, there were times when “The Office,” in the early days, we'd have dozens of talking heads in episodes. And we have always done fewer, and I think we’ve even gone fewer and fewer and fewer since the beginning. On “The Office,” I know that it’s a big part of their final season to have that, and I know they have more plans to keep doing it. So I don’t anticipate ever making that a big issue 'cause it’s never been one for us.
There’s never been any evidence that there’s a documentary crew at all, whereas on “The Office” you would see characters wearing mic packs back in the day.
Mike Schur: The rules in “The Office” were super strict. And the directors meetings at the beginning were hours long, because it would be like, “You can’t put a camera anywhere where if you cut to that camera, you would theoretically see the other cameras and the crew.” And I think in the first episode that Louis C.K. did on our show, where they were staking out a community garden to see if marijuana was growing there., there was a shot where Louis and Amy are down in the garden and he’s piecing together what he thinks happened. And he says, "And that’s where your friend lives, right there?" And it cuts to this gigantic crane shot from way up high looking down in to the garden and there’s no cameras anywhere. And one second ago there were cameras right here. And it was this weird moment where we were so used to “The Office” version that when we saw that shot, we just convulsed. We're like, “You can't do that; that's impossible.” And then we decided, “What the hell, it looks really good, and who cares?” No one really cares at a deep level. On “The Office,” at some point, we either had the feeling or we saw evidence that only about 40 percent of the viewers of the show even knew that it was a documentary. It's just not a thing that you're consciously thinking about when you’re watching TV, and if that was true of “The Office” in season 2, it’s true of 98 percent of the people in “Parks and Rec” season 4 or whatever. So we made the decision a long time ago to use the style and not the hard rules. But there were times in “The Office” when we bent over backwards to avoid that. And it was fun; it was interesting. It was a cool obstacle that you had to write in such a way, and act in such a way.
How would the cameras be at this particular scene?
Mike Schur: I've told this story before, but there was a moment where, in the episode where Stanley says, “Did I stutter?” to Michael, where in B-roll, under a talking head, Michael comes out of his office and is going to go to the kitchen and he sees that he would have to walk by Stanley. And he’s so freaked out by Stanley that he goes the other way. He takes a right, goes out the door, goes down the stairs, all the way across the parking lot, comes up the back door and comes in through Toby and Kelly’s area and gets coffee, and then goes back and walks all the away around. And Randall Einhorn, who was directing it, wanted to cover it in a certain way and we made him/he made himself take the camera and run. He had someone walk the path, and then he sprinted with a giant camera on his shoulder to every location he wanted to shoot from to see if it were plausible that a cameraman could get to all those positions to catch Michael doing all those things. It was really fun, and it felt cool and interesting, but in retrospect, it was insane. We should have just planted cameras wherever we wanted to. No one in the audience is thinking, “How did you shoot that?” You're just watching it unfold in front of you. But the joke on the show was that it’s the same documentary crew and the success of “The Office” had led to the budget for this documentary crew being seven times as big, so they have way more cameras. That was the joke from the beginning: “Oh, they’ve got twelve cameramen; it’s fine. They can be wherever we want them to be.”